McGuire on Media

I suddenly feel a lot worse about the future of newspapers

An intellectual tornado hit me Thursday morning. I am suddenly feeling inadequate and frightened about the future of newspapers. I am a pretty positive guy, and I try to keep this blog fairly upbeat. That tornado has severely shaken my confidence.

The tornado was named Reid Hoffman, and he is the co-founder of Linked In. His investment resume tells you this is a man who believes in the “consumer Internet” with every fiber of his body. He has achieved Silicon Valley “guru” status. It is also pretty clear from conversation that his patience and commitment have paid off in dollars.

Much of Hoffman’s discussion was off the record, and I will respect that. What  I really want to discuss is my reaction to a man who understands the Internet and boldly proclaims that old media brands are going to “decay.”

Hoffman seems to truly care for newspapers. He is not gleeful when he predicts their imminent demise. He talked of a slow decline on the way to a  disastrous “cliff.” He said the “classic newsroom is not defensible as a business concept.” Those are obviously discouraging words, but that wasn’t the worst of it.

As Hoffman talked I had to wonder to myself whether any newspaper person understands the Internet the way Hoffman does. I struggle to think of anyone in the newspaper business who has more strategic sense of the future than this guy does.

Just yesterday a person in the newspaper business charged with thinking about the future of newspapers asked me what the newsroom of the future should look like. I gave him a pompous answer laced with certainty. I was thinking about blogging about my answer. Until this morning. I admit to all the world my answer was poppycock when you compare it to the understanding of a guy like Hoffman. 

One of my tasks here at the Cronkite School is to think about a new course for graduate students outlining the 21st Century and news. Hoffman convinced me I’m way out of my element. 

These words are intended go beyond being a confessional about my own inadequacies. I am raising these fundamental questions: Are the right people working on the future of newspapers? If we had the courage and resources to unleash the right people, would the newspaper industry pay attention?

One of Hoffman’s on-the-record answers to a question exacerbated my fears. He said he negatively views any investment that tries to mix commercial goals with civic responsibility goals.  My friend and new colleague at the Cronkite School, Rick Rodriguez, blanched as much as I did, and gasped, “That’s what newspapers try to do!” Hoffman stuck to his guns and said they don’t mix, one will always get in the way of the other.

I walked away from the discussion with Hoffman profoundly concerned that the insularity of newspapers is even worse than I had feared. There are big-time thinkers out there planning the demise of newspapers or developing new business solutions that will make current newspaper leadership obsolete. Those are not happy thoughts.